Black, Green, & Purple Cowboys
Sports have always reflected society. It’s pure sociology, the relationship between the two. Yet somehow, the sport of rodeo has always managed to control that relationship.
This year America watched as every sport participated in the uproar of social justice following the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement while professional rodeo remained quiet.
Baseball has Jackie Robinson, football has James Brown, boxing has Muhammad Ali and basketball has Bill Russell.
The sport of professional rodeo has Charles Sampson, the first African-American to win a world title in any event as a bull rider. It also has Fred Whitfield, an eight-time champion of the world in tie-down roping and the all-around race.
These are the only two African-American athletes to ever win world championships in 84 years of professional rodeo’s existence.
From the outside looking in, the sport of rodeo seems to be behind other sports in many ways, specifically in the sense of being racially inclusive. But is the representation the reality?
Jeff Rector is the only Black pickup man in the PRCA.
Rector grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, but his love for rodeo started by watching Western TV shows and became his passion when he was introduced to the Rumford family.
The Rumford's were well known stock contractors in Abbyville, Kansas. Every summer he would go to their ranch to clean saddles, wash horses, put up hay and eventually was taught horsemanship and how to be a pick up man, where he succeeds now.
But he remembers the first time he heard a racist comment at a rodeo.
“I was 12, hired to chase out the calves and steers at the Benjamin Ranch for the Fourth of July rodeo, and some old guy from the crowd yelled out, ‘Get that calf, Black boy.’ I’ll never forget that,” Rector said. “I was like, ‘Whoa, what is that?’ I was young, I didn't realize what racism was. A few days later, at that same rodeo, I heard someone else say, ‘Even the coons come out at rodeo time.’ ”
However, now having spent almost 25 years in rodeo, Rector said he feels safer and more at home at rodeos than anywhere else.
“People don’t believe this, but I’ve actually faced way more racism outside of rodeo than inside of rodeo,” Rector said. “Rodeo people are the best people in the world.”
That doesn’t mean that he wouldn’t like to see change.
“I would love to be able to go to a rodeo and not be the only person of color there,” Rector said. “But when I started recognizing that there weren't many people of color around here, I really made myself aware to try and do the best that I could to represent my race well.”
Rector knows he might be the first time someone in the stands has ever seen a Black person on the back of a horse.
“I started to realize it when people started asking me for autographs and stuff like that,” he said. “I never got into rodeo to be well known; I just got into it because I loved it. I thought maybe being Black would hurt me but it’s actually helped me. That’s what people in the stands notice is me, so it’s worked to my advantage.”
But the extra attention creates the pressure of extra responsibility.
“I just try to represent my race by the way I carry myself, the way I dress, the way I talk, the way I ride,” Rector said. “Every time, before I ride into an arena, I pray for safety and I pray that I represent my race to the best of my ability.”
Now Rector is recognized as one of the best in the game, having worked for Rumford Rodeo Co. for 10 years as well as other stock contractors and has been selected to work numerous circuit finals, the National Finals Steer Roping and the Texas Stampede Tour Finale.
“I have been so blessed in my career,” he said. “I don’t come from a rodeo family, I just got lucky enough to have a grandpa that would buy me a horse.”
Rector also credits the Rumford family for his success, teaching him how to be a good pickup man, what makes a good pickup horse and how to deal with racism by preemptive striking.
“Bronc Rumford would always break the ice in a room full of white people by saying something funny to lighten the tension,” Rector said. “He did it so often, he would introduce his son and I by saying, ‘These are my two boys, this is Justin, he was born during the day and this is Jeff, he was born at night.’ As I got older, and I still do it to this day, if I walk into a room with a bunch of white people that I don’t know I will say something to break the ice. Bronc helped me learn how to deal with being the only Black person at most of the places I’d go.”
Some might consider that racism in itself, but Rector knows it’s just the world he lives in.
“Even 30 years from now, there will always be racists,” he said. “There are people that I know are probably a little racist simply because they have never been around a Black person before, but they accept me because of what I can do in the arena and the way I carry myself to erase some of those stereotypes.”
Fred Whitfield paved the way for Black cowboys.
He’s the only Black man to win an all-around world championship title. He’s a 20-time NFR qualifier. He's an eight time world champion.
For further perspective, he is the Michael Jordan of rodeo, one of the best to ever do it with a lasting effect on the sport that is being seen today in young talented tie-down ropers, such as Shad Mayfield, a two-time NFR qualifier currently leading the world standings heading into this year’s championship.
But the road he took to get the success he’s had was a rough one with many trials that he talks about in his book, “Gold Buckles Don’t Lie.”
He got his start in rodeo after his mother started working as a housekeeper for the Moffitt family. Their son, Roy, introduced Whitfield to the sport. However, his competitors still had a head start by having the resources and support system that most successful cowboys grow up with.
Whitfield’s father was an abusive alcoholic and his mom worked hard to provide for Fred and his siblings, but there was violence in the home and very little money. His mom had to give up two of Fred’s siblings because she couldn’t afford to provide for all of them.
“He didn't want to be from the stereotypical poor Black family, but he is,” said his wife, Cassie.
At an early age, he knew he loved to rope. Help from Roy and his family allowed Whitfield to live his dream.
“Fred is whiter than I am but he had a lot of controversy, and it was a tough deal for him,” Roy Moffitt said. “Fred was a Black man in a white man’s world, and he needed somebody in his corner.”
By the age of 8 or 9, his talent became recognizable. He began by dominating youth rodeos, high school rodeos, then amateur events and pro rodeos.
At a high school rodeo early on, Whitfield heard a guy say, “I tell you what, there’s a nigger come through here the other night on an app horse and I don’t know who he is, but if he keeps roping like that, we’re gonna know soon enough.”
They did know soon enough -- and tried to control his success in the process.
Parents at youth rodeos didn’t like Whitfield showing up and winning everything, so they tried to make a rule that prohibited sharing the same horse with another competitor at the high school finals, which would limit Whitfield, who didn't have his own horse and made do with whatever he could.
At another high school rodeo, Fred was disqualified after he ran the fastest time of the rodeo for having one sleeve rolled up. That was a clear display of racism.
“I threw a fit and they said they were going to ban me. I said next time y’all see me, it will be on TV,” he wrote in his book.
In 1990, Whitfield won Cheyenne Frontier Days and made the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo his rookie year, finishing seventh in the world and as Rookie of the Year.
“In the PRCA, there was a group that would call him “nigger” before he roped just to try and get him messed up, then when he went into the arena, that same group would boo him,” said Whifield’s friend, Casey Butaud. “They attacked him mentally, they attacked him racially and some of them attacked him physically. They gave him so much hell that almost anybody else would just go home and stay amateur or quit rodeo altogether and get a job.”
But that didn't stop Whitfield; it only fueled him. Now, he has eight gold buckles to show for it. And just like every other sport, you either love or hate the player that wins everything.
“In rodeo, these guys are fine with a Black cowboy as long as he doesn’t take all their money all the time,” he said. “If you don’t like it, you don’t like it, but it’s the truth.”
After a bar fight in Calgary, Alberta he received threats so serious that he became the only cowboy that had bodyguards. He was told that he would never get to run his first calf at the NFR that year. He won the world instead.
“I wasn’t out there to feel accepted. I was out there to win, and I didn't need their permission,” Whitfield said. “If you’re good at something, it doesn’t matter what color you are. It (racism) is not near as bad as it was, it’s just not. Nine times out of 10, it’s your own fault that you didn't qualify, not anybody else's.”
The victim mentality is just not something that Whitfield believes in and it’s advice that he overshares with young competitors to this day.
“I tell Black kids all the time not to be prejudiced because they’ve been discriminated against,” he said. “You will do and be more in your lifetime if you eliminate that element from yourself. Otherwise, it will tear you down.”
When asked to list the names of all of the Black athletes that have competed at the NFR in the last 20 years, Whitfield struggled to name more than three competitors. Still, he believes that has nothing to do with the organization.
“We can’t blame all that on the PRCA,” he said. “The monetary side of it has a lot of effect on that. There is a lot of talent out there, African-American, Black, green, purple whatever you want to call it, but it costs so much to get down the road. The ability is there.”
John Brown is one of those Black cowboys with the ability.
John Brown, better known as Catfish, is 27 years old and completely focused on doing whatever it takes to reach his dream of making it to the NFR as a tie-down roper.
“Whenever I grew up and turned on the TV, I saw Fred Whitfield,” Brown said. “That attracted me to that end of the arena (as a roper), but my dad roped, too.”
Brown, who is originally from the Fort Worth, Texas, area, was introduced to rodeo by his step dad. And he knows that’s part of what has helped him succeed.
“Generational wealth in rodeo, even in knowledge, impacts you,” he said. “There hasn’t been that knowledge passed down to African-Americans, and it's up to us to make sure that it gets passed down.”
Brown has taken it upon himself to do just that by intentionally being involved with junior ropings, youth events and spending time with the next generation.
“We want to do our part to make sure that the opportunity is there,” he said. “There are all kinds of kids from the city and regardless of if these kids become a cowboy or not, just opening their eyes and minds to the different possibilities is important.”
Brown is confident in the future accomplishments of Blacks in rodeo based on conversations with PRCA commissioner, George Taylor and the success of Mayfield, the young tie-down roping phenom who went from high school champion to NFR qualifier in 2019.
“When you watch basketball, they talk about MJ and before there was MJ, the sport was more caucasian until he became the face,” he said. “That’s what Fred Whitfield did and that’s what creates change for sure. Now you look at Shad Mayfield, and that’s who you got kids walking around wanting to be.”
Majority of Black competitors in rodeo are tie down ropers. Should 20-year-old Mayfield win the world title this December, he will be the first African-American to do so in 15 years.
“As far as the future goes, there is a lot to look forward to,” Brown said. “I’ve had the opportunity to meet George Taylor and spend a little time with him, and I think he’s going to be good for the sport moving forward.”
Brown knows rodeo is typically a sport that doesn’t like change, but he believes Taylor is the person to get to the job done.
“He understands that change has to happen in order to move forward,” he said. “The game is always going to be what it is, but I see there being some huge changes and I’m excited to see what George gets done. There’s going to be some guys who don’t want to see it, but change is inevitable.”
Brown has taken it upon himself to create new fans of rodeo so that no one has to feel like he sometimes does in rodeo.
“I’m not saying anyone treats anyone poorly out here on the road, but whenever you travel all over the country and you show up somewhere and as the only person that looks like you do, it’s an obstacle in itself,” he said.
His thoughts toward the Black Lives Matter movement are indifferent right now as he’s been so focused on getting back to competing that he hasn’t taken the time to sit down and consider all sides.
“I’m a thinker, so I’ve had things on my mind, but I really want to put more thought into some of the stuff going on,” Brown said. “I definitely think Black lives matter, but it shouldn’t be about black vs. white. I do think it’s good that it’s creating discussion. That’s a starting point.”
Regardless of where the sport of rodeo stands today, Brown believes in what’s ahead.
“I’m looking forward to the future of rodeo, “ he said. “I’ve got a ton of great relationships that I’m super thankful for because of rodeo, and it's brought a lot of joy into my life. In five years, I see there being kids from all over the place that love it. Every time I hang out with the youth, I see more fans created.”
Meanwhile, Whitfield believes it’s the lack of passion and willingness to do whatever it takes, not the presence of racism, that is the largest missing factor for Black cowboys. He said that’s the factor that leads competitors to success.
“I showed people that if they help me, I’ll do the right thing and earn it,” he said. “I practiced so much that I couldn’t get it wrong and that’s the thing that set me apart and I just don’t see that in a lot of people nowadays. Black, white, green or purple, it has nothing to do with your skin color.”